It must be hard for a writer as prolific and imaginative as Lauren Gunderson, for whom play ideas seem to flow in nonstop currents, to keep in mind the old adage that less is more.
But that maxim applies, alas, to “The Book of Will,” now at Lyric Stage Company of Boston under the direction of Courtney O’Connor. The play’s plot-padding and overly arch dialogue would be less noticeable if Gunderson had kept it to a tight 90-minute one-act.
As she often does, Gunderson has turned to history for inspiration — in this case, the literary rescue operation that resulted in the First Folio. After Shakespeare died in 1616, his friends and colleagues at the King’s Men theater company, led by John Heminges and Henry Condell, banded together to collect and publish an authoritative version of his plays.
Had they not done so, many of Shakespeare’s works, unthinkably, might have been lost to time, and others would have endured only in pirated and unreliable versions. What-if? scenarios don’t come much worse than that one.
“The Book of Will” unfolds on a stage artfully framed by scenic designer Janie E. Howland with pages upon pages of the Bard’s scripts. Gunderson sets before us the dilemma to be solved right away, opening in London in 1619, where an actor is blithely mangling the text of “Hamlet,” drawn from an unauthorized and quite wretched quarto version. “To be, or not to be … Aye, there’s the point. To die, to sleep, is that all?” If the ear could weep, it would.
Then the scene shifts to the tap house owned by Heminges (Joshua Wolf Coleman), where he, Condell (Ed Hoopman), actor Richard Burbage (Will McGarrahan), and Alice Heminges (Grace Experience), John’s daughter, are fuming over that performance and all the pirated and inaccurate versions of Shakespeare’s plays that are being widely staged.
Before long, Burbage having died, Heminges and Condell have thrown themselves into the task of collating accurate versions of Shakespeare’s scripts. “Those words are our lives’ work, Burbage’s life, Will’s life,” says Condell, whom Hoopman plays with his customary vigor. “If we don’t find them, they die with us. … Publish or vanish, that’s the choice I see. With him gone, and a legacy on the line? We are Will.”
So the stakes of their undertaking — for posterity, for world literature — are sky-high. Yet somehow “The Book of Will” turns out to be more interesting to think about than to watch.
While no Gunderson play is devoid of wit, and “The Book of Will” has its share of engaging moments, approximating period speech while still crafting dialogue that is engrossing to contemporary audiences isn’t easy. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman pulled it off in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), but more often, the result is a stilted, in-between brand of conversation that stifles the playwright’s natural voice and tends toward the static.
That was part of the problem with “Shakespeare’s Will,” a 2005 solo play about Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen, and it undermines “The Book of Will” as well — a particular pity because Gunderson’s natural voice has been quite wonderful in plays like “I and You.”
The strain of anchoring her play in Will’s world shows as she shoehorns in references to his plays, though it must be said that the ever-reliable McGarrahan, as Burbage, has a high old time declaiming a medley of excerpts from the plays to put a whippersnapper in his place. Fred Sullivan Jr. is divertingly bombastic as an egomaniacal Ben Jonson, and “The Book of Will” has some fun with the crass, bottom-line opportunism of publisher William Jaggard (McGarrahan again), whose more principled son Isaac is played by Lewis D. Wheeler.
Gunderson, whose work has often focused on strong women protagonists, makes sure to give a decent amount of stage time not just to Alice Heminges but to her mother and John’s wife, Rebecca Heminges (Sarah Newhouse, who doubles as Emilia Bassano Lanier, speculated upon as the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets), and Elizabeth Condell, wife of Henry, played by Shani Farrell, who doubles as Anne Hathaway. But it still feels like a momentum-slowing miscalculation to devote a significant chunk of time at the top of Act Two to a scene inspired by the death of Rebecca.
Narratively, “The Book of Will” bumps up against the fact that no matter how important the book in question, there’s limited dramatic oomph in the mechanics of acquiring the rights to publish, finding a printer willing to handle such a large task, and so on. Yet decidedly imperfect though “The Book of Will” is, Gunderson has nonetheless performed a service to cultural memory. Life without Shakespeare’s works is unimaginable, and she reminds us that we came within an eyelash — and some enterprising actors — of losing them.
THE BOOK OF WILL
Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through March 27. Tickets $25-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com